Nature, in its limited wisdom, gave us four seasons. The New York Times and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have added a fifth: Oscar season--the time of year when movie studios advertise their most "important" films, when over 6,000 members ponder whom or what to grant Academy honors, and when millions of Times readers slog through tens of thousands of words of Oscar news. The forecast: parties and celebrities with a chance of irrelevant gossip.
The Oscars, of course, are nothing new, but the relentless attention the Times has given them this year is. As Tom Scocca noted in The New York Observer last week, the paper has "historically kept the Academy Awards at arm's length." No more. Some of it can be attributed, as Scocca did, to the fact that studios now campaign openly for Oscars, giving "reporters a dose of conflict to write about." But the Oscars also tap into two of the Times's favorite subjects--youth and wealth, often with the added bonus of artistic accomplishments. And when else can the country's most respected newspaper overlap interests with Us Weekly?
The New York Times's Oscar coverage has expanded so much, in fact, that TNR Online has decided to close the circle and, yes, award the awards-watchers:
The Most Surprising Use of Times Staffers goes to ...
It takes a lot to feed the Oscar machine, and the Times has happily handed over two reporters to help Sharon Waxman on the Hollywood beat. Caryn James, a critic at the paper, has written seven Oscar-themed pieces in the last few months, not including her series of articles on movie trailers that have appeared in nytimes.com's "Awards Season" section, Red Carpet. Culture reporter David Carr is even more in thrall of the Academy. The Times charged him with keeping the paper's Oscar blog, The Carpetbagger, which kicked off on December 6 with a promise from Carr that he would examine "a campaign that everyone pretends is not a campaign: screenings, mentions, and minor awards [that] are all major elements of an ineffable process that can lead to over-the-top speeches and riches beyond imagination." In between posts, Carr has been scuttling around Manhattan making short movies for the Times's website in which he investigates, among other things, the most popular Oscar-night drinks at the St. Regis Hotel and who Times Square passersby think will win Best Actor. Other writers who have spent time with Oscar include Stuart Elliott, Allison Hope Weiner, and Jacques Steinberg.
Indeed, what has been notable about this year's Oscar coverage is how little of it has been written by the paper's film critics. Which is to say how little of it has been about the art of filmmaking.
The Most Overused Oscar Evergreen goes to ...
Trophy case or atop the toilet? Thus goes the age-old inquiry--where do stars keep their Oscars? The Times, like a number of other publications, continues to believe that the public has an insatiable annual desire to know where obscure celebrities of yesteryear store their Academy Awards. The answer is always--always--somewhere either wildly grandiose (a shrine) or improbably humble (a bathroom). Somehow, the novelty isn't what it used to be. But in a fit of inspiration, the Times recruited actress Carrie Fisher to put a fresh spin on the topic this year. Fisher reports that Elizabeth Taylor keeps her Oscars in her dining room.
The Section Least Suited to Oscar-Frenzy goes to ...
It's not that this is the first time the Times editorial page has weighed in on the Academy Awards. In 2003, a few hundred words condemned the decision to discontinue mailing copies of nominated films to Academy members. Earlier that year, an editorial worried that stars' opposition to the Iraq war was being muffled. The paper lauded Halle Berry in 2002 for being the first black woman to win a best actress trophy, and in 1998 it twice scrutinized the success of that greatest of profitable mediocrities, Titanic. (Sample concerns: "the film is very long" and "the subject is literally a downer.") Oscar commentary has been a periodic presence on the editorial page for the past few decades.
But in most of those previous editorials, the Times at least attempted to moor the celebrity fluff to bigger social issues--fairness, freedom of speech, race relations, art versus commerce. Not so this year. The day after the Academy announced its nominees, an editorial entitled "Oh, Oscar!"--insouciant exclamation point included!--offered this meditation:
In a way, the days after the Academy Award nominations have been announced are almost as entertaining as Oscar night. What makes it so is the search for significance in the pattern--if there is one--of the nominations. This is human nature at work. There is nothing we love better than finding order where we suspect it may not exist and deciphering meaning where meaning may not be intended. We wonder, what is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences trying to tell us?
The editorial went on to explain that this year's best-picture nominees tilt toward "serious subjects," though it did not bother to mention which ones. Nor did it mention a single nominee. It's as if the Times recognized that its attempt to discover substance in Oscar frivolity had been thwarted by, well, films of real substance. In desperation, the editorial retreated to banter about Lord of the Rings and King Kong.
The Oscar Trend Least Relevant to Readers goes to ...
The Times has not been remiss in covering a trend that is sweeping the celebrity portion of the population: So far this year, two pieces have explored the phenomenon of swag--extravagant gift baskets bestowed upon famous award presenters. One article informs readers that it is a "marketing juggernaut," another that it is the "one thing uppermost in mind" in Hollywood right now.
I don't care. Forty million people watch the Oscars. Two million people read the Times. They don't care either.
The Academy Awards will take place this Sunday, but the four-hour ceremony isn't likely to be the end of Oscar season. Questions and second-guessing will no doubt follow. Get ready for next year's predictions. And don't forget to thank the Times.
Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.